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Elvis Costello says it’s ‘about playing’

Singer-songwriter opened the South by Southwest music festival
/ Source: Billboard

In the unlikely setting of an enormous Austin Convention Center ballroom, Elvis Costello sat Wednesday  for a public interview that marked the beginning of Texas’ annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival.

For nearly 90 minutes, the veteran artist discussed his career with MTV Networks executive Bill Flanagan.

When asked why he thought he was still a viable artist nearly three decades after his first release, he responded, “I don’t know why that is. I just do what I do.”

The singer-songwriter said, “I’ve been very, very fortunate,” referring to the many “great opportunities” his career has offered. “A couple of those that came up were quite amazing.”

Among them: working with a wide range of established artists, from Jerry Lee Lewis and George Jones to Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Burt Bacharach and the Brodsky Quartet. Obviously humbled by such collaborations, he said, “These are the things I’ll take away with me.”

Defending his prolific output and the wide-ranging experimentation he has indulged over time — recording everything from punk-era new wave classics to opera — Costello simply said it was a case of “not allowing critics to write your records for you.”

Then and now
Jokingly, he described the difference between his longtime band the Attractions and its more recent incarnation, the Imposters, as “less hair, more face.”

The bands are virtually identical, although bassist Bruce Thomas — with whom Costello has a well-known adverse relationship — has been replaced by Davey Farragher. Keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas round out the lineup.

Costello further defined the difference between the two bands as “a vast amount of experience,” noting that “no one was sitting by the phone waiting for me to call.” Instead, each musician was working on other projects, and now brings more to the table.

Of original bass player Thomas, Costello said, “Bruce simply can’t play a groove.” He nevertheless called the Attractions “the best band of ’77 by a country mile.”

When it was brought up that he has reissued catalog titles in different deluxe editions on two labels, Costello said he was not trying to milk money out of die-hard fans. He sees reissues as being “for those who missed it the first time around” rather than “those obsessed with having everything.”

The 50-year-old artist acknowledged that “radio is my enemy” and said he doesn’t expect widespread support from traditional music business channels when he releases a new work, such as his latest rock album, “The Delivery Man” (Lost Highway). Hitting the road, he said, remains the best way to get his music heard.

“It’s always been about playing,” he said. “It’s not about records. Live work is where it’s at.”